Indy's wealth of religious diversity Spirit & Place, a month-long festival celebrating the cultural and religious diversity of Indianapolis, is in full swing. With daily events from Oct. 25 to Nov. 20, this year’s Spirit & Place centers on the theme of “Moving and Staying.” The festival includes over 100 concerts, plays, exhibits, dialogues and other events. One of the highlights this year is participation by renowned poet, author and conservationist Wendell Barry. Other events include a Native American celebration; a performance of Jewish music, song and dance; a Latin jazz concert; an art fair with work from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, South America, Central America and the Caribbean; and an interfaith service.
According to Steve Sheehan of IUPUI’s Polis Center, Indianapolis has a wealth of religious diversity. “Indianapolis is home to a Buddhist temple, a Baha’i congregation, a Hindu congregation, two Sikh gurdwaras, five Muslim mosques, dozens of synagogues, several Orthodox Christian churches serving various ethnic groups and about a dozen Korean Christian congregations, ranging in denomination from Catholic to Southern Baptist. The largest group of recent immigrants, Hispanics, is represented by numerous churches.”
A study by Glenmary Research Center ranked Indiana as the seventh most religiously diverse state in the nation, with over 109 denominations practicing here.
This diversity, however, goes largely unrecognized. There is “a passing awareness” of their presence in the city, as Frank Alexander, pastor of Oasis of Hope Missionary Baptist Church, noted, “but not a detailed awareness.”
Indianapolis’ religious diversity actually has a long history. According to the Polis Center, several waves of immigrants to Indianapolis account for the religious diversity we see today. The original settlers formed the Protestant backbone of Indianapolis. Then, in the 1890s, Slovenian and Greek Orthodox Christians and Eastern European Jews settled in Indianapolis. They were followed in the 1930s by predominantly Catholic Irish laborers and German artisans. The 1960s saw an influx of Asian immigrants, with large numbers of Indians, Koreans and Chinese, who brought Eastern religions such as Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam with them. In the 1990s, Latinos began to settle in Indianapolis in increasing numbers. As a result, many churches now offer services in Spanish. Most recently, there has been exponential growth in the Sikh community, as some 200 Sikh families from California have relocated to Indianapolis.
To learn more about Indianapolis’ religious communities, NUVO traveled to the near Northside. The area is home to literally hundreds of churches, temples, synagogues and mosques. In our tour, we visit congregations which represent a microcosm of the breadth, depth and history of Indianapolis’ religious diversity.
The Baha’i Center
749 W. 62nd St. • 317-547-3691
We begin just east of Guion Road and 62nd Street at the Baha’i Center. “We are a small group, about 175 people, including children,” says Carol Niss, a member of the congregation. “We are very diverse, from different religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds.”
Services, which include devotional, administrative and social aspects, are held every 19 days, on the first of the month according to the Baha’i calendar, which is solar and has 19 months of 19 days each. They also hold celebrations on Baha’i holy days, which include the birthday of the founder of the Baha’i religion, Bahaullah, a Day of the Covenant (with God), a New Year’s Festival, which celebrates the beginning of the Baha’i year on March 21, and three days of celebration around the anniversary of Bahaullah’s announcement of his prophethood and mission.
Bahaullah taught there is only one God and one human family, and that all religions are spiritually united. The fundamental purpose of religion, according to Bahaullah, is to break down traditional barriers of race, class, creed, gender and nation and to promote concord and harmony among the peoples of the world.
The India Community Center - Hindu and Sikh Community
4220 W. 56th St. • 317-514-3935
Heading south we come to the India Community Center, just west of Guion on 56th Street. Founded in 1985, the center is home to a Hindu congregation, Geeta Mandal, and a Sikh gurdwara. The center has seen exponential growth over the recent years. An estimated 2,500 families of Indian descent are living in greater Indianapolis, representing a range of faiths, including Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism.
Currently, Geeta Mandal serves some 800 men, women and children, according to Madhu Bhargava, a member and one of the organizers for Geeta Mandal’s annual Divali celebration, a major Hindu holiday — The Festival of Lights — which took place Oct. 29. “We meet every other Sunday at the center for prayers and lessons,” Bhargava said. They also have pujas — ceremonies reverencing a god, a spirit or another aspect of the divine through invocations, prayers, songs and rituals — each Wednesday night. Hinduism is a multifaceted faith with many variations in creed and teachings, tied together by a central belief in a single deity. Hindus view the pantheons of gods and goddesses — Shiva, Ramkrisna, Ganesh, Laskhmi, to name a few — as manifestations or aspects of that supreme God.
The Sikh community has seen a huge influx in the past couple years, largely of families resettling from California. Estimates are that Indianapolis is home to some 500 Sikh families. In the past seven years, two new dedicated gurdwaras have been built on the Southside of Indianapolis, but worship and social activities for Sikhs are still held at the India Community Center.
Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak, and preaches a message of devotion and remembrance of God at all times, simplicity, truthful living, the importance of family and the equality of mankind.
First Mennonite Church of Indianapolis
4601 Knollton Road • 317-251-1980
From the India Community Center, we head east on 56th and then south on Knollton Road, bringing us to the First Mennonite Church. Sunday services are attended by about 200 people. The worship service blends together traditional hymns and instrumental music, children’s time and prayer requests along with the sermon.
Mennonites are a Christian group which believes in working for peace, justice and reconciliation in all of aspects of life, emphasizing the connection between faith and good works. Among the tenets of the Mennonites is the separation of church and state, the refusal to bear arms and adult, rather than infant, Baptism. While some Mennonite communities adhere to “simple ways,” eschewing technology and wearing distinctive clothing, most Mennonites, including those at First Mennonite Church, are fully modern.
Masjid Al-Fajr Islamic Center
2845 Cold Spring Road • 317-923-2847
Down the street from St. Michael is Masjid al-Fajr, just south of 30th and Cold Spring Road. Masjid al-Fajr is a Sunni mosque, and serves a diverse community of 600 families, evenly divided between African-Americans, Indo-Pakistanis and Arabs, with a smattering from other Muslim countries, according to member and mosque employee Jowharah Simmons.
Weekly services are held on Fridays at 1:30 p.m., and feature a sermon followed by congregational prayers. The mosque is also open for individuals to make any of the five daily prayers required of devout Muslims. Simmons said that during Ramadan, which this year runs from Oct. 5 to Nov. 4, the community has nightly dinners to break the fast.
They also run a full-time school called Madressa tul Ilm, or the School of Knowledge, a Sunday school, the As-Sabeel Islamic Studies Institute for adults, a prison ministry and offer marriage services as well as burial and funeral service at the nearby Crown Hill Cemetery.
St. Michael The Archangel
3354 W. 30th St. • 317-926-7359
Continuing south, we come to St. Michael, which is on 30th between Guion and Kessler. St. Michael is one of six Catholic churches serving the near Northside. St. Michael’s congregation, which consists of nearly 800 families, is ethnically diverse, according to Bill Danner, the director of religion education. “Our dominant population is white, but we have a large group of African-Americans and Hispanics from all over the Spanish-speaking world. We also have quite a few Asian-Americans from India.”
Established in 1948, St. Michael has a parochial school serving both Catholics and non-Catholics, kindergarten through eighth grade. St. Michael is also home to a Cub Scout pack, boy and girl scout troops, a St. Vincent DePaul charity and a Catholic Youth Organization sports league.
Church of the Holy Angels
740 W. 28th St. • 317-926-3324 www.holyangelsindy.org
Continuing east from Masjid al-Fajr, we come to another Catholic congregation, the Church of the Holy Angels, on 28th Street, just west of Michigan Road. An African-American Catholic congregation since the 1950s, Holy Angels has recently been served by two ministers from Africa, one from Nigeria and the other from Ghana, said Mary Quinn, pastoral associate.
Their busy calendar includes items such as Juneteenth (a holiday in celebration of emancipation of American slaves), Kwanza and Martin Luther King Day celebrations along with more traditional Catholic celebrations.
Mass is held daily and several times each Sunday. The congregation also has a school with grades kindergarten through eighth, and a convent where dedicated sisters live. Holy Angels is active in many community outreach programs, from Habitat to Humanity to St. Vincent De Paul to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
Trinity Episcopal Church
3243 N. Meridian St. • 317-926-1346 www.trinitychurchindy.org
Heading north on Meridian to 32nd Street brings us to the Trinity Episcopal Church. One of several historic churches which reflect the strong Protestant roots of the area, Trinity was built in 1950s and was once known as a “high society” church. Today, it grounds itself in the surrounding community through a variety of social service and outreach programs. They take pains to welcome all to their church — the diocese bishop is a woman; one of Trinity’s own ministers is female; gay people have a prominent role in the church, in altar services, the governing board and in the staff; African-Americans account for some 15 percent of the congregation.
Trinity is home to 390 families, and is renowned for its strong music program, which includes the Trinity Choir, the Ensemble Voltaire (formerly Ensemble Ouabache) and the Meridian Song Project. Music is an important part of the liturgy as well as a strong element of Trinity’s social activities.
Episcopalians are sometimes called High Protestants as their services are formal with scheduled readings, sermons and recitals of the creed, and include Eucharist (or Communion). Trinity offers two services each Sunday, the first being quieter with older language (“thee” and “thou”), and the second with a greater emphasis on music and more modern language.
Trinity is also home to St. Richard’s, the only Episcopal school in the state.
Tabernacle Presbyterian Church
418 E. 34th St. • 317-923-5458 www.tabpres.org
A couple blocks east on 34th Street leads us to Tabernacle Presbyterian, a historic Gothic-style church built in the early 1920s and which serves around 650 members. Tabernacle’s facilities include several outstanding stained glass windows as well as a variety of architectural symbols. A newly dedicated carillon, one of just 10 in the state, was added to the tower in September of this year.
Tabs, as the congregation calls itself, offers four worship services in different styles — a more traditional with readings, a sermon and hymns; a contemporary service that includes music with drums and guitar and a more participatory style; a Tai’ze service, which is a contemplative service with times for singing and silence; and an inner-city service led by a local African-American pastor.
In the 1960s, when many churches followed their membership to the suburbs, Tabs made a conscious decision to remain in its home, and to dedicate itself to the community it was surrounded by. As a result, Tabs members have been instrumental in implementing many programs, including the Raphael Health Clinic, the Christian Legal Clinic, the Unleavened Bread Café and Oaks Academy. Tabs currently runs an 80-year-old recreation program for area youth that serves approximately 2,000 young people from the neighborhood in a variety of sports programming. They also operate the Open Door Soup Kitchen, which provides 500 meals to the community each week. Pastor John Bruington said that this reflects the traditional Presbyterian commitment to good works, particularly to doing things “decently.”
Unitarian Universalist Church of Indianapolis
615 W. 43rd St. • 317-283-4760
Heading both a bit west and north, we come to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Indianapolis. Founded in 1979, the Unitarian Universalists moved to their home on 43rd Street in 1981.
The church has 286 members, 68 friends and five returning visitors. The church is heavily involved in gender and LGBT issues, with a monthly film festival and designation as a church that is particularly welcoming to these groups. They are also welcoming of Pagan groups, and discussion meetings during the next year will focus on an exploration of Pagan ideas. Unitarians are non-credal, believing each person is responsible for his or her own beliefs and maintaining that all people have an obligation to seek the truth wherever it may lead.
Among the values Unitarians adhere to are the inherent worth and dignity of every person, of any gender, race, ethnicity, age, ability, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and national origin; justice, equality and compassion in human relations; the right of conscience; and the use of the democratic process.
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church
3412 N. Park Ave. • 317-925-3588
A third historical church, Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, is located two blocks east of Tabernacle. Our Redeemer was also built in the early 1920s and in the subsequent decades seven large stained glass windows were added.
According to Linda Elkins, who has worked at Our Redeemer for 20 years, the church was founded as an alternative to the Lutheran churches in Indianapolis at the time, all of whom held services in German. While Our Redeemer had, and still has, a strong German-American representation, their services were held in English. Today, Our Redeemer has weekly services and Communion, which follow the Lutheran lectionary and include a rich selection of holy music.
Lutherans believe in salvation through grace alone and in open Communion — any Baptized Christian is welcome at the altar. Our Redeemer is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, which grew out of three Lutheran denominations, which unified in the late 1980s.
North United Methodist Church
3808 N. Meridian St. • 317-924-2612 www.numcindy.org
From Our Redeemer we head north to the corner of Meridian and 38th to North United Methodist Church. North United is the fourth of the historical churches in the tour, and was also built in the Gothic style in the early 1920s.
North United Methodist has approximately 1,000 members, with racial, socio-economic, theological and political diversity. “We have a great diversity,” says Pastor Kevin Armstrong, “largely because we attract people who intentionally choose a congregation that looks different than what they may find at work, or in their circle of friends and family.”
Although many members travel from other neighborhoods to attend North United Methodist, the church is actively involved in the local community. They run the Bread and Bowl soup kitchen and offer emergency assistance, such as help with utility bills, job searches or lending an ear for those who need to talk over their problems. They also host a weekly farmer’s market that is the city’s largest WIC program, where parents can buy fresh vegetables and fruits with their WIC vouchers. Other features of the farmer’s market are a nurses clinic, which provides public health screening, and regular performances for children, from concerts to plays to puppet shows. According to Armstrong these community services are a manifestation of the Methodist value of combining personal piety with social outreach. “We believe it is not really possible to have a personal faith without a public face,” he said.
Methodists are among the more democratic of the denominations, with annual conferences where an even mix of lay members and clergy vote on church affairs.
Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox
4011 N. Pennsylvania St. • 317-288-3816
North to 40th and Pennsylvania, just around the corner from the NUVO offices, brings us to Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox. The community moved into this facility in 1960, purchasing several adjacent buildings in the next years for a school and to accommodate their priest. In 1973, they began the Greek Festival, which has become a major cultural event in Indianapolis.
Holy Trinity serves 550 families. “We’re not just Greek people,” said the Rev. Anastasios Gounaris, also known as Father Taso. “There are a lot of people who are not of Greek ancestry, but who are Orthodox.” According to Taso, the services still use some Greek, although they are predominantly in English.
Among other activities, Holy Trinity runs a religious school, a Greek school, adult education, a youth group and a woman’s group.
The Greek Orthodox church dates itself to AD 33. In 1026, they and the Roman Catholic church split over issues of papal imperfection and church governance. The theology of Greek Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism remains quite similar.
African Methodist Episcopal Church
4602 N. College Ave. • 317-283-2783 www.rcamec.org
North and east of the Unitarian Universalist Church, we find the Robinson Community African Methodist Episcopal Church. Robinson Community AME was founded in 1983 after AME Bishop Hubert N. Robinson had a vision “that an African Methodist Episcopal church would be located on the north side of Indianapolis to save souls and to provide a holistic ministry to its members in and out of the church.” Despite some opposition from white community members, the AME purchased land on the Northside, and the church was built.
Today, Robinson Community AME offers a variety of worship opportunities in addition to traditional Sunday services — Monday evening Praise and Prayer services, Saturday mornings the NIA Rejoice meets to “serve, praise and worship God through dance.” They are also involved in a variety of social programs, such as a hospital visitation program, HIV/AIDS awareness program and a food pantry.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church was born in the late 1700s as a result of racial discrimination in mainline Methodist churches. They follow Methodist teachings with an emphasis on plain and simple Gospel, but organize the church along Episcopal lines with bishops and presiding elders.
5879 Central Ave. • 317-253-5419 www.shaareytefilla.org
Farther north we come to Shaarey Tefilla, a conservative Jewish congregation with approximately 150 families. Shaarey Tefilla is a family-oriented congregation, with some 50 youngsters under 5 in the congregation, leadership in the services by the bat and bar mitvah students and a commitment to women’s participation. “Women lead prayers, read Torah and Haftarah, as well as count in the minyanim,” Rabbi Arnold Bienstock said.
Shaarey Tefilla has a variety of educational programs, a program for visiting the ill and committee that deals with social action and charitable concerns.
Conservative Judaism began as a reaction against the more liberal Reform movement and seeks to maintain a balance between Orthodoxy and modernism. Conservative Jews are committed to following traditional Jewish laws and customs, including kosher laws, observing the Sabbath and prayers three times a day and celebrating Jewish holy days; a deliberately non-fundamentalist teaching of Jewish principles of faith; a positive attitude toward modern culture; and an acceptance of both traditional rabbinic modes of study and modern scholarship and critical text study when considering Jewish religious texts.
Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting
3030 E. Kessler Blvd. • 317-255-2485
Our last stop, east on Kessler just past Glendale Mall, is the Indianapolis First Friends Meeting, one of the oldest Quaker congregations in Indianapolis. They moved to their current home on Kessler, just north of 30th, in 1956.
The First Friends Meeting holds services each Sunday. “We take an experiential approach to faith,” explains Stan Banker, the pastor at First Friends. “The center of our worship service is looking for God within the hearts of the people gathered.” As such, their prayer services, held each Sunday, include “a time of quiet worship, where 200 people silently listen for the word of God.”
In the past year, the congregation planted a meditational woods next to the meeting house, reflecting the Quaker emphasis on solitude and silence in experiencing the presence of God, and giving the community a place to seek God in nature and in stillness. Due to the experiential nature of Quakerism, there is not a strong emphasis on doctrine or creed, Banker explained, though they place themselves firmly within the Christian tradition. Among the hallmarks of Quakerism is a strong devotion to pacifism, a rejection of ritual and iconography. The First Friends Meeting House is very simple inside, with plain blue walls and wood pews. “Other churches have stained glass windows,” Banker said. “We have plain glass, but I always say that God paints our windows new each day.”
The tour will have to be continued … Naturally, any such tour can only offer a snapshot of the city’s religious landscape. We could backtrack west to the Common Ground Church, one of a growing number of non-denominational churches in Indianapolis; and then onto the Indy Hebrew Congregation, a reform Jewish synagogue; and even farther north to the cluster of Conservative, Reform and Orthodox Jewish congregations on Hoover Street. We could head to the far Eastside and visit the An-Lac Buddhist Temple and the Korean Baptist Church, or stop by the Zainabia Shi’ite center in Pike Township and the Gurdwara Sahib in Hancock Township.
We could visit Saints Constantine and Helen Church, a member of the Romanian Orthodox Episcopate or the Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana (First Hispanic Baptist Church) and St. Patrick Catholic Church, the largest Latino Catholic congregation in the city. We could stop in at New Vision Baptist Church, Light of the World Christian Church, Christ Temple Apostolic or Masjid Mohammad, Nation of Islam Mosque 74, representative of the many African-American congregations in the city.
But that will have to wait for another day. In the meantime, we hope to see you out and about the streets of Indy — at a Spirit & Place concert or lecture, at an interfaith event, visiting a congregation you’ve never been to before, exploring the diversity that marks Indianapolis as a modern, cosmopolitan city.
Pamela K. Taylor has been a free-lance writer for 15 years. She also writes poetry and fiction, and is the editor of Many Voices, One Faith. Taylor’s home on the Web is www.pktaylor.com.